One of the aspects I enjoy most about my role at LifeWay is the opportunity to interact with Southern Baptist pastors and church members across the country. Whenever I speak at conferences or provide training, I come away with profound gratitude for the brothers and sisters in our Convention.
In previous decades, some might have seen the SBC as irrelevant to broader evangelicalism. But today the SBC includes some of the largest seminaries in the world, employs a stunning international mission force, and oversees the world’s largest Christian resource provider. More recently, broader evangelical institutions have tapped Southern Baptists to lead them (David Dockery at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Greg Thornbury at The King’s College, Thomas White at Cedarville, etc.).
What about younger Southern Baptists? What does the future of the SBC look like?
The following are some observations about the younger generation of Southern Baptists. I admit that my thoughts here are anecdotal, based on hundreds of conversations over the years, which come together to form an impression. Feel free to disagree if your overall impression is different. But here are a few things I’ve noticed.
1. Younger Southern Baptists have chastened expectations regarding political engagement.
It’s common to hear the story of young evangelicals fleeing conservative churches and embracing center-left politics. I don’t see this happening among young Southern Baptist pastors. What I do see is less emphasis on bringing change through political engagement and more emphasis on dealing pastorally with the implications of a secularizing society.
When I talk with older Southern Baptists about recent cultural developments, I get the impression that many of them see mobilization of Christian voters as the best way to effect change. When I talk with younger Southern Baptists, I get the impression that the landscape has shifted to the point they expect to be a minority. Therefore, the strategy becomes more about preserving space for Christian morality and less about enshrining our views in law. This is a generalization, but I think there’s truth here: Older Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Israel. Younger Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Babylon. That’s a significant shift, and it leads to a different tone.
2. Younger Southern Baptists tend to be Reformed-ish.
Not all young Southern Baptists are Calvinists, by any means, but many of their preaching heroes are, and so young guys tend to settle under the Reformed umbrella by default. I say they’re Reformed-ish because when pressed, I find that many don’t subscribe to all of Calvinism’s particular tenets and doctrines. Like all Southern Baptists, the younger generation is on a spectrum with regards to Calvinism, with perhaps more who are comfortable with that label today than in the past.
It’s interesting to note that young Southern Baptists who reject Reformed theology are in agreement with their Calvinist counterparts that theological depth and biblical exposition are essential to the health of the church, and that our teaching and preaching should be centered on the gospel. They tell me how much they benefit from the vast sermon resources available from John Piper, John Macarthur, and other pastors even if they don’t agree with all aspects of their soteriology. Likewise, I’ve heard this comment (in multiple variations) from young non-Reformed pastors explaining why they frequent blogs and websites from Reformed guys: “The Calvinists are always talking about ministry and mission; the non-Calvinists are always talking about Calvinism.” (Keep in mind, this type of comment refers to online perception, and wouldn’t be true of offline conversations.) So, it seems to me that even among the young Southern Baptists who are not Reformed or even Reformed-ish, there’s an appreciation of this stream in Southern Baptist life.
3. Younger Southern Baptists tend to be theologically conservative without holding to certain cultural distinctives.
The two biggest examples of this would be worship style and alcohol. On worship style, the trend is toward contemporary worship and casual dress. It’s safe to say that most Southern Baptist church plants are as theologically conservative as those of previous generations, but the style has changed. (Interestingly enough, some of the churches aligned with the liberal splinter group CBF are more traditional and liturgical in their worship style than their younger conservative counterparts.)
On alcohol, I find that younger Southern Baptists don’t agree with the Convention’s many statements that imply total abstinence as a test of true faithfulness or a qualification for church leadership. Some younger pastors require their staff to abstain, primarily to avoid potential problems that issue may cause. In the middle, there are pastors who are personally opposed to alcohol but do not require the position for people in leadership. On the other side, there are younger Southern Baptists who see no problem with drinking in moderation. State conventions are sometimes put in the awkward position of wanting to celebrate some of their fastest growing churches and best preachers without affirming a church’s choice to not take a hard stance against drinking. (On this issue, I sense that my views on alcohol consumption are the minority opinion. Young Southern Baptists respect my teetotaling convictions, but they do not share them.)
4. Younger Southern Baptists are all over the spectrum when it comes to eschatology.
I don’t have surveys to back this up, but my hunch is that thirty years ago, most conservative Southern Baptists would have placed themselves firmly in the premillennial, pretribulation Rapture camp regarding the end times. Dispensationalism reigned supreme for decades, even if prominent Southern Baptists throughout history like E.Y. Mullins and Herschel Hobbs did not hold this view.
Among young Southern Baptists today, Dispensationalism is on the decline and diversity is the norm. Whenever I talk to young guys about their eschatology, they run the spectrum from amillennial, to historic premillennial, to post-tribulation Rapture, to partial preterism. I’ve even met a couple of postmillennial Southern Baptists (a happy, hopeful minority!). But I meet very few traditional Dispensationalists. Left Behind was perhaps the best and worst thing to ever happen to Dispensationalism. The books popularized it for the masses and made it a punchline for the next generation.
I suspect the eschatological shift among younger Southern Baptists is more substantial than the Reformed discussion, but it doesn’t get headlines because (1) pastors are inclined to not make a big deal of their position, especially if it differs from that of their church, and (2) I’ve yet to hear of any church splits where eschatology was at the forefront. Of course, the Baptist Faith and Message (wisely) does not specify an End Times scenario.
5. Younger Southern Baptists are focused more on local church ministry and less on Convention meetings.
Last summer, several older pastors noted the difference in atmosphere between the Convention meeting in Houston and the SEND North America conference at Prestonwood. The Convention meeting was sparsely attended and largely filled with denominational protocol, entity reports, and voting sessions. SEND North America was overflowing with energy, excitement, and the schedule was filled with breakout sessions that ran the gamut from church revitalization to church planting to counseling, etc. It was far more multigenerational, far less formal, and designed around pastoral equipping.
I don’t find younger Southern Baptists to be averse to engaging in denominational structures and Convention matters, but they are more likely to spend time and money on the conferences or events in which they receive the most helpful instruction for practical ministry. That’s why the SEND numbers rivaled the SBC’s, and perhaps why thousands of Southern Baptists who attend T4G or Catalyst will not be present at the Convention’s annual meeting.
What about you? Do you agree or disagree with my observations? What trends do you see among younger Southern Baptists?
Update: I have written down some further reflections on these five observations here.